If there is one proposition on which there is a consensus among Middle East experts—from academia to the media, and to politicians who echo them both—it is that the “root cause” of present problems in the region are the Western imperialists who imposed their will on its hapless indigenous peoples. According to this narrative, Western powers had been nibbling at the margins of the Ottoman Empire and seized on the opportunity offered by its siding with Germany in World War I. Secret agreements between imperialist powers determined new political boundaries without regard to the needs or interests of those who lived in the region, or to any promises made in the past.
As he did in his 1999 Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in Middle East (written with his wife Inari), Efraim Karsh, professor emeritus of Middle East Studies at Kings College, London and currently professor at Bar Ilan University, again turns the conventional wisdom on its head. He writes that Britain, France, and Russia begged the Ottoman Empire to stay out of World War I, promising to ensure the Empire’s survival if it did. Moreover, Karsh insists “the depiction of Muslims as hapless victims of the aggressive encroachments of others, too dim to be accountable for their own fate, is not only completely unfounded but the inverse of the truth.”
The Western powers did play an important role, but the process “was nothing like the caricature portrayed by the standard historiography,” where Europeans and Americans sat at a table creating states. Rather, as the book’s title indicates, the tail often wagged the dog, with the resultant map and rulers, “the aggregate outcome of intense pushing and shoving … in which the local actors, despite their marked inferiority to the great powers, often had the upper hand.”
Karsh argues that every part of the accepted foundational narrative is wrong. Take the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France stipulating their future areas of influence in the region, which is typically treated as “the source of all evil” and prima facie evidence of western duplicity. A mark of the potency of this claim of devilry is that even ISIS has invoked it, saying its June 2014 conquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was the first step towards “smashing the Sykes-Picot border.”
But the Sykes-Picot agreement was never implemented. In fact, under Sykes-Picot, Mosul itself was supposed to become part of Syria. It was “moved” to Iraq in exchange for Britain giving French-Mandated Syria the Golan (supposed to be part of the Jewish National Home) and 25 percent of its oil interests in Iraq.
Then there’s the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. Karsh argues that the British did not fail to carry out their promises to Hussein; rather Hussein manipulated and deceived the British—and was richly rewarded for his pains. Hussein ibn Ali, then Grand Sharif of Mecca, impressed Britain with his (false) claim to represent the entire Arab world. As for double-dealing, Hussein was the chief culprit, negotiating unsuccessfully with the Ottomans behind Britain’s back. Far from being champions of national liberation, Hussein and his sons wanted to build their own empire upon the Ottoman ruins. And while the Hashemites never got their empire, thanks to Britain, Hussein’s sons Faisal and Abdullah became rulers of Iraq and Transjordan respectively, the latter cut off from the Jewish National Home to satisfy Abdullah.
Britain didn’t want to rule the region but to find a cheap way to maintain its interests. In Empires of the Sand, Karsh sums up Britain’s attitude in a pithy cable then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill sent to Prime Minister Lloyd George on March 14, 1921: “I have no doubt personally Faisal offers far away best chance of saving our money.”
While Empires of the Sand left off in 1923, in The Tail Wags the Dog Karsh continues the story to the present day. He covers a lot of ground in only two hundred pages, from the Ottoman period to the British Mandate in Palestine, to the rise and fall of the Shah, to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan up through the Obama years. The Obama chapters are the strongest in the book. This is because Karsh convincingly shows how Obama’s total acceptance of the conventional narrative has had far-reaching—and disastrous—implications for U.S. policy.
Obama’s adoption of the dogma of Arabs as helpless victims of imperial powers was clear in his June 2009 Cairo speech. “[T]ension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations … Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims … [culminating in] the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians.”
The problem with subscribing to a false narrative is that it blinds you to what is actually going on. If colonialism is the self-evident culprit, you miss the real story, which is the role of a resurgent Islam. As Karsh tells it, imperialist dreams “have survived the fall of the Ottoman Empire to haunt Islamic and Middle Eastern politics into the twenty-first century … If, today, America is reviled in the Muslim world, it is not because of its specific policies but because, as the preeminent world power, it blocks the final realization of this same age-old dream of regaining the lost glory of the caliphate.” “Clueless in Arabia,” as Karsh puts it, the Obama administration has gone out of its way “to deny, ignore, euphemize and whitewash anything smacking of Islamic violence, radicalism or expansionism.”
Typically, Obama misunderstood the Arab Spring. Karsh writes: “In his 19 May speech, Obama portrayed the ‘Arab Spring’ as a regional antithesis to Islamism in general, and to the militant brand offered by Osama bin Laden and his ilk in particular.” On the contrary, “for Middle Easterners it meant a return to the Islamic sociopolitical order that had underpinned the region for over a millennium as the schizophrenic state system established in its place after World War I failed to fill the void left by its destruction.”
Misinterpreting events, Obama has advanced policies ranging from silly to dangerous. On the silly side, NASA’s mission has been adapted to “engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.” On the dangerous end of the spectrum, Karsh explores Obama’s nuclear empowerment of Iran’s mullahs in the name of “engagement” with that “victimized” society.
Unfortunately, for all the strength of Karsh’s underlying thesis, other sections of the book are not as strong. Jokes need a straight man, even bad jokes, like the idea that the West is responsible for the mess in the Mideast. What made the Obama section so good is that he played the straight man, giving Karsh someone to play off. This is missing elsewhere. There’s no discussion of how the false ideas that shaped Western attitudes about the Middle East came to be so dominant in academia, no detailed description of the adversaries whose basic conceptions he takes down. Although the book is written for a general audience, Karsh takes for granted that the reader knows who holds these perceptions and why.
It’s a big omission, and given that Karsh comes from the academic world, one would expect such a chapter to have been particularly strong. The virulent Edward Said and his ilk would have offered prime game.
Also, despite the book’s brevity, Karsh himself sometimes loses track of his thesis, getting lost in the weeds, for example, of the history of Palestine under the Mandate. What is needed is a laser-like focus and instead we have a diffuse narrative. Karsh thus misses an opportunity to drive a decisive nail in the coffin of false ideas that mold Western perception and policy in the Mideast.
What would the Middle East have looked like had the Western powers kept out of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire? Writes Karsh: “The region would most likely have been transformed into a volatile amalgam of numerous small fiefdoms and kingdoms, mostly antagonistic to one another.” In other words, much like it looks today, as the state system established by the Western powers that endured for almost a century has disintegrated.